Delhi needs to help, not smother Hasina


Phat Cat
Super Mod
Feb 23, 2009
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The revolt by the poorly paid troops of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) began on February 25 morning at their Pilkhana headquarters in Dhaka and by the time the 33-hour standoff was over, 76 bodies of Bangladesh Army officers had been found while another 60 or so were missing. The surprise element seemed obvious and the revolt spread to some other cities. But the ferocity of the attack and the high rate of casualties was the most frightening part. Ill-treated and deprived of some of the basic amenities, the troops just could not take it anymore. Their chief had promised to have their grievances attended to but made no mention of these problems when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed visited BDR headquarters the day before. By the time the mutiny was over the director-general of the force, Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed, had been killed by the mutineers.

While inquiries in Bangladesh would endeavour to get at the truth, it does appear that the discontent against the officers was channelled by someone, the spark was then ignited and there was someone guiding the men to the targets — all Army officers. Conspiracy theories abound, alleging the foreign hand (Inter-Services Intelligence) and money, that the mutiny had been pre-planned, and there are accusations that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was involved and that the problems of the BDR were not really so acute. One aspect is, therefore, important: Was there an intelligence failure or was there suppression of intelligence? If it was the former, it’s incompetence and complacency; if it’s the latter, then it is far more sinister and Sheikh Hasina has a much bigger problem on her hands. She may find that she has to rely on the conspirators to discover the conspirators.

It is also well-known that the relationship between the Awami League and the Army has been uneasy, somewhat like the Pakistan People’s Party-Pakistan Army relationship. It was conventional wisdom prior to the elections last December that if the Bangladesh Army, led by Gen. Moeen Ahmed, actually handed over charge of governance to an elected body they would do so only after managing the results. If this argument is correct then presumably the 2008 elections were as surprising for the Army as the 1954 elections which had resulted in the decimation of the Muslim League, and the 1970 elections which eventually led to the liberation of Bangladesh. Having received universal accolades for holding free and fair elections, it was just not conceivable that the Army could withdraw their gift to the people of Bangladesh.

The Awami League victory was simply too overwhelming; the youth and the women were the X-factors in an election in which the main issues were appallingly poor economic governance and corruption; neither India nor Mujibur Rahman were the issues. It is doubtful, though, that the Army would have deliberately had more than a hundred of its officers killed just to prove, in a convoluted and expensive way, that it is still relevant to the Awami League. Nevertheless, the Hasina government will have to depend more on the Army to handle the crisis, assuage growing anger in the Army which can be dangerous, provide immediate relief to the BDR, be seen to be fair and punish the mutineers. Unless this is done quickly, it will create the very real fear of reprisals and an enduring animus between the higher echelons of the Army and the BDR troops.
One of the long-standing promises of Sheikh Hasina has been that the Awami League would prosecute the collaborators of the 1971 war of liberation, in which the East Pakistan Rifles (now BDR) had fought against the Pakistan Army. These collaborators have friends in high places in Islamabad, some, in fact, are leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and have close ties with Pakistan. The Bangladesh Army and its directorate-general of forces intelligence are considered to be clones of the Pakistan Army and the ISI. Neither of these Army establishments want the trial of collaborators and a worried Pakistan government had despatched a special envoy, Zia Ispahani, to advise against implementing the resolution to try the collaborators.

Meanwhile, the announcement that the Bangladesh government had decided to hand over Anup Chetia to India would have sent cold shivers down the collective spines of his handlers in Dhaka.
It would appear that elitism among the Bangladesh Army officers deployed to the BDR and their administrative indifference to the plight of the other ranks would have been the cause of the feeling of deprivation and discrimination among the troops. This would have provided fertile ground for those wanting to suborn the troops against the system, pit the BDR against the Army. It might have been calculated that the Awami League government should be tested in its early days before it settled down. The party may have won a massive mandate but somewhere the cries of "Bangladesh hobe Taliban" still resonate. Jamaat-e-Islami representation in Parliament may have gone down remarkably but the essential votebank is intact.

Apart from the usual suspects — failure of intelligence or deliberate suppression of intelligence — there was obviously a total failure of command. There is just no explanation for the deaths of so many Army officers and that too so brutally in many cases.

Trouble arises in uniformed and highly disciplined forces when the troops find that their officers do not identify themselves with the force, nor empathise with them. If the officers are on short-term assignments and have not grown with the force, the distance between them and the troops they command usually widens, sometimes to the point of breakdown. This is what apparently happened at Pilkhana.

It is politically and diplomatically correct for India to say that this episode is an internal matter for the Bangladesh government. But it is also true that India as a neighbour would be concerned, not just because there was a mutiny, but about the source and scale of the revolt. A friendly government now holds the reins of power in Dhaka; we cannot and must not smother it with love and affection. Instead, we need to strengthen that government because the alternative, as we can imagine, is far too dangerous. What we need to do is to quietly convey our security red lines stressing our political neutrality, and promise economic and financial generosity. Indo-Bangladesh dealings have to be lifted beyond the bureaucratic rigidities that endlessly seek equal concessions leaving no room for large-heartedness.

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